Book Junkies Collect Prizes, Too

Christina Hung

JURA PINTAR ’05 in Lowell House with his award-winning collection of books on Marxist philosophy. He is entering again Harvard’s competition in undergraduate book collecting.

Before leaving his international boarding school in New Mexico to begin his first year at Harvard, Jura Pintar ’05 shipped his belongings across the country to his Thayer dorm room.

Among those belongings were 11 large boxes of books.

“My books were all over the place freshman year—the shelves just couldn’t accommodate them,” says Pintar, who is originally from Croatia. “They were lined up on the fireplace mantel, they covered my desktop and they filled my desk drawers. Eventually, the overcrowding got so bad that I just started stacking them up in corners and next to my bed.”

“I’m like a hamster; I just can’t bear to part with them,” adds Pintar, who now keeps roughly 300 books in his Lowell House dorm room.

Pintar won second-place last year in the Visiting Committee’s competition for undergraduate book collecting.

The prize, which was established in 1977 by members of the Board of Overseer’s Committee to Visit the Harvard University Library and which is administered through Lamont Library, is awarded annually to undergraduates who have formed the most coherent, promising and thoughtful book collections.

The winner receives $1,000 while second and third place winners are awarded $750 and $500 each.

One of only two competitions run through Harvard’s libraries, the contest is open to all undergraduates at the University.

The other contest, the Philip Hofer Prize, is awarded every other year and focuses on book and art collecting. It is administered through Houghton Library and is open to students at all of Harvard’s graduate schools.

Joining the Competition

To enter the competition, students must submit a 2,500-word essay as well as an annotated bibliography containing no less than 30 but no more than 50 titles about their book collecting efforts, the influence of their mentors, the acquisition and care of their books and the future direction of their collection.

“The essay and the bibliography are the most important parts of the application,” says Heather E. Cole, librarian of Lamont and Hilles libraries. “After all, we don’t expect students to have collections that are already complete and ready for sale at Sotheby’s. Rather, we are looking for students who want to build on their collections.”

Pinter, who reads books in English, Croatian, German, Latin and Greek, won a prize last year for his 50-volume collection of Marxist philosophy. He says that his collection actually contains more than 100 volumes, but that he pared it down for the contest.

The rarity and financial worth of the collections is not taken into account by the judges, who are newly selected each year.

“It’s not a prize about quantity, but rather quality—that and the coherence of the collection,” Cole says.

Although the judges do not require students to submit their entire collections for examination, they do have the right to ask to examine the entire collection or a part of it.

“This contest is not about great books at all. It’s about finding a subject that you want to learn about and build a body of knowledge about something that’s not necessarily going to be relevant to a Core class,” she says.

On the contest’s website is a statement by former University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s words that captures the spirit of the book prize.

He explains his emotional and intellectual attachment to the books that he has collected over the years:

”Without my books, I feel at sea, without moorings; without a frame; without personal and intellectual syntax; without the kind of structure that I need to find my way back to so many of the ideas, emotions, and revelations that are so much a part of me and my own history.”

History of the Contest

The subjects of winning collections have varied widely in the past, ranging from East Asian cooking and artifacts relating to the Berlin subway system to comic books, children’s book illustrations, aviation dictionaries and lepidoptery.

The only requirement the contest stipulates is that collections focus on a particular author, scholarly subject or some form of print medium.

“Developing book collections with a definite sense of cohesion makes you aware of the relationship between books at an early age,” says Nancy M. Cline, who is the Larsen librarian of Harvard College. “And because understanding how a group of books relate to each other is so complementary to doing scholarly research, this contest is of great value to undergraduates.”

“The contest serves as a reminder of a time when you had a different relationship to the books that you owned,” says Professor Ann M. Blair, who teaches a course called History 1318, “History of the Book and Reading,” and who recently won a MacArthur Fellowship for her enduring love of books.

“You would annotate them, make notes in the margins. Books were of emotional value,” she explains.

Blair says that although our culture has changed, the contest upholds important scholarly practices.

“We now have different kinds of media—everyone has files on webmail, but books are still important as long-term media,” Blair says. “This contest plays into a very old and very long tradition of collecting books.”

Last year, David M. Orenstein ’02 won first prize for his essay and bibliography on Shanghai. Pintar garnered second prize for his entry on Marxist philosophy and book collecting practices, entitled ‘From Marxians to Martians.’ Susan Long ’02 won third prize for her entry on family-owned collections.

Story of a Winner

Pintar decided to enter the contest last year, when his freshman adviser, who knew of his extensive book collection, alerted him to the contest.

“I have collected books almost my whole life, and the project itself seemed like a fun thing to do. Plus, I thought I had a fair chance of winning a prize” he says.

Pintar says his family contributed to his dedication and love for books.

“On a Saturday morning, we’d go out on a family walk and stop at a few bookstores and get a few nice new books. Buying and reading books is a big part of our lives,” he says.

“My family has a library with somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 volumes,” he adds.

Pintar says the Marxism collection he submitted to the contest was inspired by his childhood and family experiences.

“I’ve been interested in Marxist theory for a very long time, partly because of my historical experience in growing up in a formerly communist country, and partially because of my family’s involvement with Marxist theory,” he says.

His grandparents were part of the Communist resistance during World War II and his family traced their involvement with the Party back four generations. However, in the early 1980s, Pintar’s family was expelled from the party for being too left wing.

The tradition of book collecting in Pintar’s family also goes back many generations.

“One of the reasons that I keep a personal library that is so well-documented is because of my great-grandfather, who was a politician in the center-left party in Croatia, and also a great book collector,” he says. “When he died, his quite sizable library was donated to a public school library, but when the Nationalists came to power in Croatia, his collection was purged, along with many other books that were deemed ideologically incorrect. All his manuscripts and memoirs also disappeared without a trace.”

Pintar, who says he reads quickly and diligently, restricts most of his pleasure reading to summers, although right now he is reading some books on medieval Latin poetry, the Bosnian war and theoretical biology.

Gunning for the Prize

The contest requests that students interested in submitting must have declared their intent to enter by last Friday, and according to Cole, the number of applicants for this year’s contest is on the high end.

The official deadline for full applications is Feb. 14.

Priscilla Orta ’05 declared her intent to enter the contest with her 30-volume collection of books about Latinos in the United States, focusing on Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrant workers, including titles such as Heroic Mexico, Crossing Over, With These Hands and Immigrant America.

If she wins, she hopes to use the prize money to enhance her collection with older volumes.

“I have a lot of general books, but I’d like to get specific volumes from the 1850s, when many Mexicans immigrated. They are simply not in an undergrad’s budget,” she quips.

A self-proclaimed book worm, Orta says books are her comfort.

“Both of my parents are deceased, so I live at Harvard. All of my stuff is in my room and a very important part of my stuff—a lot of memories are associated with them.”

Orta keeps about 200 books in her Leverett House dorm room, which cost her $300 to ship to Harvard initially.

Nathan Hill ’03 declared his intent to enter the contest with a collection of books on Tibet that he began in high school.

A Sanskrit concentrator, Hill is studying Tibetan and writing a thesis on Tibetan verbs.

“Ever since I was a kid, I loved owning books and when I became interested in Tibetan studies, I learned that the books in the discipline tend to be printed in small runs and [to be] expensive,” he says.

“Widener doesn’t have a lot of these books,” he says, “so I feel I’m doing a service to humanity by collecting them.”

He says he hopes to use the prize money to buy more books or to help pay for a graduate school degree in Tibetan studies.

Alex Lemann ’06 is entering the competition with his roughly 50-volume collection on World War II books, focused on the American soldier.

“It’s not that impressive, but I figure it will be a fun and rewarding experience to enter the contest,” he says.

For Lemann, collecting and reading books comes naturally.

“Basically, my collection is just a group of books I bought over the years because I thought they looked interesting—I never really thought of it as a collection before I saw the poster for the contest,” he says.